In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

45. Corner Store

Victoria Theatre

The Victoria Theatre, built in 1908, advertises itself as "San Francisco's Oldest, Operating Theatre".  The "operating" is a bit confusing.  As far as I can tell, every theater that predates the Victoria was either lost in the 1906 earthquake or has been demolished since then, but perhaps there are still a few extant structures, not currently used as theaters, that prevent the Victoria from claiming the title outright as "oldest theater".

Contrast the theater's current crimson façade with this 1940s photo.  Whoever went with the current color scheme did the theater a huge favor, as it is stunning from the outside.  The building's arched turrets, tiled awning, and clover-shaped windows create a unique blend of Spanish colonial, Chinese, and Victorian-era architecture.  More than any other theater I've seen, this building belongs in San Francisco.

The side of the building is a beautiful canvas, showcasing the name of the theater (twice), an ad for "Albers flapjack flour", and what looks like two performers on the stage.  Though the 1940s photo shows none of these, an older photograph in Jack Tillmany's Theatres of San Francisco book shows the flour ad (though slightly different), so at a minimum the current flour ad is an authentic recreation.  The mural of the two actors is probably newer, but has been completed in an older style.

The marquee and vertical sign are both old, simple, and attractive.  Really it doesn't take much; just a few lightbulbs and decorative swirls elevate a marquee from shoe store to entertainment venue.

The ten block stretch of Mission St. from 14th St. to 24th St. was once a bustling strip, sporting more than a dozen theaters to satisfy movie goers. Among those theaters still standing with visible marquees, passersby can see the El Capitan (1928-1957), Tower (1912-1998), New Mission (1916-1993), Crown (1913-1987), and Grand (1940-1988) theaters.  Ah, can you imagine?  Today, we have one multiplex with sixteen screens showing ten different movies, but back then we had twelve theaters showing twelve different movies.  It's a bit like the difference between going to a dozen different restaurants, each with their own decor, or gathering the chefs from those different restaurants under one roof and opening a food court.  Yes, the food is the same, but it's not just about the food.

Please forgive my blurry lobby photo below.  For a better picture of the lobby's layout, see this classic photo.  What my photo shows is that the lobby was packed, with patrons, employees, and volunteers from the numerous community groups supporting the film because of its relevance to their own missions.  These groups were handing out flyers for various events, including a film being shown at the Artists' Television Access theater.

The auditorium seats 300 downstairs and 180 upstairs, for a total of 480.  The rows are very close together, andImeanclose.  I eventually moved up to the front row so my knees wouldn't dig into the seats in front of me.  Tiny ornamentations reveal the theater's age, like the light fixtures and the designs on the metal grills.  The theater smells old, too; older than a hundred years.  It's so musky, I began to suspect that Shakespeare might have performed here before making it big in London.  And beneath one of the seats some graffiti reads "Sophocles wuz here".

Thin columns and modest gold trim frame the stage and screen.  In the photo below, the stars and director of the movie prepare for the next showing.  Yes, it's a small production.  But there is nothing quite like watching someone on film for ninety minutes, then seeing them in person immediately afterward (and from the limitless legroom of the front row).  (If you're looking to impress me, just send me a movie of you walking around your neighborhood talking about your daily routine.  When next I see you, I'll exclaim, "I don't believe it!  A celebrity!")  The director, Katherine Bruens, introduced the film, thanking her patient subject, Yousef Elijah.  Imploring us to turn off our cell phones, she said "I had to edit around my cell phone ringing throughout the footage of my own film."

While we waited for the movie to begin, portions of the film projected onto the screen showing a montage of corner stores throughout the city.  I had arrived early, and so sat through the loop several times, beginning to notice pedestrians in the background.  It would be fascinating to suddenly see all the photos that had been taken of me without my knowledge, with me just in the background of some worthier subject.  This might convey an important counter perspective in which I am not the protagonist.

A question and answer session followed the film, during which we heard from the director, Yousef, Yousef's youngest son, and various members of the community groups who support the film.  Someone (I don't recall who) said, "it's always for the better" when people share their stories and connect, finding commonality.  This might have come from the head of the Arab American Grocers Association, who, in responding to a question about why so many corner stores are run by Arabs, said that these businesses can be operated without being fluent in English, and provide to an ethnic group a gateway into the community.  Irish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants helped establish themselves with such stores, in the same way Arabs, Koreans, and Indians do today.

Tickets are priced as for a non-profit arts performance, rather than for a movie.



Corner Store

There are two versions of the American Dream™.  In the first, a family flees persecution in a far off land, coming to these shores with little in the way of belongings.  Through hard work the family earns a place in this society.  The children gain access to education and services denied to the parents in their homeland, and the family is able to shape their own destiny.  In the second, a person of poverty (already an American, let's say), through hard work or deserved luck breaks from the limitations of their birth and enters the society of elites, at which point they may proudly reminisce about rags, bootstraps, nobody never, and other such things.  Both suppose that our society does not prescribe a person's station, that regardless of birth a person may move fluidly within our economic and cultural echelons.  What differentiates the two is that in the latter, the dreamer is at the bottom of a ladder to be climbed.  In the former, the dreamer rejects the ladder available to them, and goes in search of another, even if it means beginning at the bottom all over again.  What an adventurous and terrifying prospect.

Eleven years ago, Yousef Elijah emigrated from Bethlehem to San Francisco, leaving behind his wife and three children (aged seven, three, and one).  Yousef opened a food and liquor store on the corners of Church St. and 15th St., where he works from 7:30 AM to midnight, seven days a week, nearly every day of the year.  He sleeps in a tiny room in the back that also doubles as the store's office.  That little beep the front door makes when a customer walks into the store is Yousef's cue, if he's trying to grab a quick meal in the back, or take inventory in the stock room, to emerge and tend to the front.  The television above the cash register used to display news from Palestine, but after 9/11 Yousef hung an American flag and switched to local programming.

In the beginning of the film, local business owners stress that their neighborhood is like a family, and that they all like Yousef.  But once we examine Yousef's daily routine it becomes depressingly clear that he has not integrated.  Yousef has some company from his brothers, who also live in San Francisco (with their families), but mostly Yousef is physically alone.  He seldom leaves the store, and his interactions with his customers take place at the cash register.  Yousef works in San Francisco, but he is still living in Bethlehem.  He talks on the phone with his wife and children several times a week, staying active and present in their lives, connecting with them better than do some parents who live at home with their children.  (His daughter calls him for advice when she's having trouble at school.  In the United States, children are implanted with a microchip at age ten that emits painful bursts of electricity if the child ever asks their parent for advice, or shows any interest in their parent's life, and so American children never have this relationship with their parents.)

If I understand the chronology of the film correctly, Yousef has not been home once in the past eleven years, because if he left the United States, he might not be able to return.  In the Q&A session, he says that he was an illegal resident for six years, and during that time he was scared to go on the street, or to make any mistake.  However, early in the film Yousef finally gains his green card and plans a trip back to Bethlehem, at which point he and his family must decide whether Yousef will remain in Bethlehem, or the family will finally come to the United States to join him (in America, all you need to do to get a green card is either be born here, or work four thousand straight days in a convenience store; your choice).

I said in my review of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) that the movie was important.  Corner Store shares that status.  It is an incredibly patient and sensitive look at a family's efforts to better their situation.  When Yousef returns to Bethlehem to visit his family, and I had my first glimpse at his family's spacious house and garden, I was concerned that their standard of living might actually decrease by coming to San Francisco, especially given Yousef's cramped quarters.  As I mentioned in relation to Promised Lands, I'm starting at the ground floor with respect to my knowledge and opinions about the conflict in the Middle East.  This film's perspective is as Pro-Palestine as Promised Lands is Pro-Israel, but regardless is quite convincing that inhabitants of the West Bank are treated as second class citizens.  Israeli settlements encroach into West Bank cities, closing off streets to create an Arab ghetto.  Travel is restricted between cities, discouraging commerce and decreasing access to fresh produce.  Water is scarce by First World standards; Yousef's neighbors speculate that the Israeli settlements, accounting for a tiny minority of the local population, are given all the water they want, while pipes regularly go dry in Yousef's house.  After several such revelations, Yousef's corner store in the United States doesn't look so bad.

(Yousef had a corner store in Bethlehem, too.  But, as I understand it, a transit checkpoint turned a once desirable location into a wasteland.  A friend of his still has a store in a nearby city.  That store once opened to a thriving market.  The Israeli military then commandeered part of the market space for a barracks, walling it off from the Arab side of town.  The friend still has his store on the ground floor, but the upper floors are now occupied by Israelis, who gain access to the building from the Israeli side of the wall, and throw trash out their window onto the man's storefront.)

Yousef says that freedom, time, and health are the costs of life.  Reflecting on the sacrifices my own parents have made for the benefit of my brother and me, I think all we can do to repay our parents is to love them and appreciate the opportunities now available to us.  If our parents are successful in lifting us to the next rung of the ladder, they also disconnect us from the hardships of their own station, masking their personal losses.  Anyone born into any sort of second-generation privilege will find it difficult to understand the costs their parents have paid, the emotional debt they've assumed.  Corner Store testifies to these costs, so that we will not forget.

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